At Home in their Sustainable Resort with David Leventhal and Sandra Kahn

By Organic Spa Magazine / September 14, 2011

Who: Husband and wife team, David Leventhal and Sandra Kahn, dedicated environmentalists and founders of Playa Viva a new sustainable resort and residence community on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, where 80 percent of its 200 acres is protected land.

Where: David and Sandra divide their time between California’s Bay Area and Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

Why: Because in addition to bringing eco-resorts to another level, they’re also tireless environmentalists who co-founded Rainforest2Reef, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the biological corridor that stretches from the rainforest of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the Mesoamerican Reef. Because one of their goals at Playa Viva is to “create long-lasting connections to family, friends, and the environment that enrich our lives.”

Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you two meet?

David Leventhal: Sandy and I met in San Francisco. She was going to school to get her masters in orthodontics. She’s from Mexico, and I had come to San Francisco from back East. We met through mutual friends. I met a girlfriend of hers who was visiting from Mexico, and when she returned, she asked Sandy, “Why haven’t you told me about this guy, David?” Sandy told her she’d never met me, and the friend said, “You’re going to marry him.” A few months later, we were engaged. When you know, you know.

You call yourself an “accidental environmentalist,” why is that?

DL: Sandra has been much more aware of the issues than I. Her mom is a major environmentalist in Mexico and founded a group called Guerreros Verdes, an environmental group that translates to “The Green Warriors.” They have a place in Acapulco, and she has been very involved in protecting the water table, saving trees, stopping a dam from being built, and trying to stop transgenic corn from coming into Mexico. If you ask Sandy’s mom how she became environmentally conscious, she’ll say, “Sandra.” They have a symbiotic relationship in that way.

First, you co-founded the nonprofit, Rainforest2Reef, then you built Casa Viva Troncones, a green home you turned into a successful B&B. Now, you’re working on creating Playa Viva, a sustainable community. What started you on this path?

DL: One of the catalytic events was meeting Dr. Gerardo Ceballos, a Mexican biologist. He invited us to to Cuixmala/Chamela (Sir James Goldsmith’s place near Puerta Vallarta) where he was the curator of the reserve, and after learning more about the different conservation projects he was involved in Puerta Vallarta, and after exploring the area and learning more, we ended up investing and creating Rainforest2Reef with our profits from the sale of a start-up company during the internet boom. A lot of this also had to do with having children. Before this, Sandra felt the world was a terrible place to have children, and we needed to make it a better place, so we founded the nonprofit and shortly after built Casa Viva in 2001. It was set up with a bunch of little casitas and a common area. We built it like that so if we came with our family members each could have his or her place. It worked out well, design-wise.

Did this influence your plans for Playa Viva?

DL: Yes, We created a “social architecture” that allowed the creation of community. We built green. We tried to leave as much of local flora and fauna on the spot. We used all dead wood or recovered wood, we set up edible gardens and a gray and black water treatment separation. We did solar hot water—we did a little bit of solar, but didn’t do it right, so we learned some lessons on that. We ended up with four casitas on 80 meters of beachfront. One lot (20 by 50 meters) will remain fallow for a bird sanctuary. We were looking to expand Casa Viva and an opportunity came up to buy what was originally 100 acres, then we ended up getting 200. Eighty percent of the land is set aside for protection. Turns out there was an archaeological site on the property, an estuary, and mangroves. We also wanted to reforest the area that had been turned into a coconut plantation in the 1920s. We found one of the few pieces of virgin coastal forest in the area, did seed collections, and set up a nursery with 7,000 trees. We hired a permaculture team to help us reforest the area, set up organic gardens, and really manage the land from a regenerative permaculture perspective. When you bring back the flora you get the fauna to come back with it.

What was your initial vision?

DL: It centered around creating a place that was regenerative. We wanted to create community. We wanted it to be a transformational experience. We wanted it to be healthy for people.

What is your hope for the property ten, twenty years down the road?

Sandra Kahn: Ever since we began, my idea was to make it a model that could be replicated. My three passions are environment, community development, and health. I want to have this space for the community that lives there, as well as for those who come and visit. The coast is very, very beautiful and we can resource it and have animals and plants and people enjoy it. We can enhance peoples’ lives, but also be respectful and help the environment.

DL: We wanted to create a legacy. People think about going to Esalen or a similar place…it’s thought of as a great community where great thinkers come together and great action comes out of that. That’s what I envision for Playa Viva. SK: Not only great thinkers, but the moment you arrive you’re in a completely different life-changing experience. When you leave, your life is forever changed.

Where is the heart of Playa Viva?

SK: It’s evolving. It centers around the communal space, the common area that becomes the heart. Spiritually, I think it comes from the community and nature.

DL: I would say the heart is the water. That’s the essence of it, the ocean and the estuary. Sea creatures come in and lay their eggs and go back out to the ocean. In September the estuary flushes out and the whole place goes through a metamorphosis. That physical draining and filling is the physical heart of the area.

How would you define an eco-resort?

DL: There’s a lot of greenwashing about. Just because someone asks you to place a card on the sheet that says “don’t wash,” doesn’t make you an eco-resort. It’s really about being conscious about your impact on the planet and making a conscious effort to make the tough choices and still not try to compromise the experience of the guest. More than anything else, it’s the consciousness of the people who run it that those details are taken care of—from composting to water conservation, energy conservation, community engagement to looking at transportation issues. If you have a consciousness about it, it will show through.